McGill Research Group Investigating
Canadian Mining in Latin America


Key Data

Population:10,290,003 people Area:1,098,581 km2 Density:9 people / km2 Demographics:Quechua 30%,
Mestizo (mixed white and Amerindian ancestry) 30%,
Aymara 25%,
White 15%
Mineral Resources:silver, copper, gold GDP:$51.5 billion GDP per capita:$5,000 GINI:58.2


Bolivia is a country rich in natural resources and mining has played a dominant role in its economy ever since colonization by Spain in the sixteenth century. The structure of the mining industry is quite unique to Bolivia with its main actors including the State run Bolivian Mining Corporation (COMIBOL), informal cooperatives and foreign companies.  In 1952 Bolivian mines were nationalized through the creation of the COMIBOL, making all miners state employees. Dropping world metal prices in the 1980s and the subsequent shift to neo-liberal policies beginning in the 1990s  led to the privatization of sections of the mining industry. This divided the national mining sector in two: unionized and salaried miners working for the COMIBOL, and small-scale or artisanal miners who are employed by cooperatives and paid based on the amount of ore they are able to mine on a given day. It is not uncommon for conflicts to erupt at mine sites between unionized and cooperative workers over access to the mine, working condition or mineral exploitation. In 1987 for the first time since the creation of the COMIBOL the country’s cooperatives, and other informal miners produced more minerals than the COMIBOL. Today the number of cooperative entities has increased to 4,000 (200 in 1995) which represents 83% of the Bolivian mining activity in 2010 according to the government. Since the 1990s foreign mining corporations have begun developing projects in Bolivia.

Mining Characteristics

Bolivia is richly endowed with mineral resources, which are especially located in the Western part of the country in Oruro and Potosi. There are a number of 238 minerals, which gives a good idea about the coutry’s mining potential. The main minerals exploited in Bolivia are (by volume of extraction) zinc, silver, tin, lead, antimony, wolfram, and gold.

Although lithium has not been exploited yet, Bolivia has the largest lithium deposit in the world. This is located beneath the beautiful salt beds of Uyuni, in the highlands of Eastern Bolivia, one of Bolivia’s most popular tourist attractions.

Economic Context

Bolivia is one of the poorest and least developed countries of Latin America, with 51.3% of its population living below the poverty line. It’s main economic activities include agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining and manufacturing goods such as textiles, clothing, refined metals and refined petroleum. The mining industry, especially the extraction of natural gas and zinc, currently dominated Bolivia’s export economy.

Despite the recession, Bolivia recorded the highest growth rate in South America during 2009, and mining production has increased by 60% since 2008 according to the Bolivian National Statistics Institute. Indeed, as commodity prices have climbed in the past five years, Bolivia has become dependent on its non-fuel minerals to strengthen its economy, including tin, silver, zinc, lead, bismuth, copper, gold, iron, lithium, antimony and tungsten. It is now the sixth-largest producer of tin (with the world’s sixth-largest reserve – 8% of the global total), though the country’s presence in the tin sector has slowly faded with increasing competition coming from Asia. The production of silver however has been on the rise as the country records a 2.5% increase in production in 2011, and has become the world’s fifth largest producer of silver in 2010.

Interestingly, Bolivia’s largest mining potential isn’t zinc, silver or tin, but litium, as the demand for electric and hybrid cars lithium baterries has been exploding in the past years. In fact Bolivia is estimated to have the largest un-mined lithium resource in Salar de Uyunni, one of the country’s most precious and touristic landscape. Opposition to this project is certainly high, especially from local communities, but so are the stakes for a country with such great needs for economic development. Despite the government nationalistic priorities, and local opposition sparked by the project, the government has already formed agreements with other countries.

Political Context

Bolivia is a democratic republic (a “Social Unitarian state” in the new Bolivian Constitution) led by a president which is elected by popular vote every five years. In December 2005, Bolivians elected Evo Morales from the Movement Toward Socialism, after he ran on a promise to change the country’s traditional political class and empower the nation’s poor, indigenous majority. In December 2009, President Morales was easily re-elected, while his party took control of the legislative branch of the government.

If the election of neo-liberal presidents in the 1980s and 1990s has brought along a climate favorable to foreign investments, Socialist president Evo Morales, ever since his election in 2005, has sought to re-establish national control over the industry. Despite nationalist trends however, the reality is that mining remains a dominant part of the national economy, with mineral production representing 14.1% of Bolivia’s overall GDP in 2010, and around 70% of the mining activity coming from private mining (co-operatives or foreign corporations). Bolivian politics over mining under Morales have then been to maintain foreign investment in order to upgrade and develop the industry, while providing greater economic benefit to the state. The government is currently working on a new constitution that would give the state control over non-renewable mineral resources, by for instance allowing the state to receive 55% of mining profits while foreign companies will receive the remaining 45%.

Social Context

Most mining conflicts in Bolivia oppose cooperative and unionized miners, which is quite unsurprising given the structure of the Bolivian mining industry. In January 2011 the Bolivia Government reported 29 unresolved conflicts involving cooperative and unionized workers.

Timeline of Key Events